The trail crossed the Deerpiss a final time. "Now," Whandall told Green Stone. "We'll see Tep's Town as soon as we've got around this grove."
The town lay ahead, down a gentle slope. Thirty men armed and wearing Lordsmen armor blocked the road. They stood to attention, not menacing, but there was no way around them.
"Bandits," Green Stone shouted.
Whandall stood on the driving bench and gestured violently at the following wagons, both hands out, flat, empty, pushing down. Put down your weapons! Green Stone saw the urgency in his father's face. He rushed back to the others, urging calm.
Whandall dropped from the wagon. He stepped forward, the big engraved knife prominently sheathed. "Hail."
"Hail." The spokesman was elderly, his face hidden in the Lordsman helmet and armor, but the voice sounded familiar. "Whandall Feathersnake. We have heard the stories." He turned to speak to someone behind him, a man hidden by the ranks of guardsmen. "It's him, Lord. Whandall Placehold, returned." He turned back, looked at the caravan, and turned again. "Come back rich, he has."
"Peacevoice Waterman," Whandall said.
"Master Peacevoice Waterman to you, sir!" There was some amusement and no malice in the voice. "Not surprised you remember me. Sir."
"Is that Lord Samorty in command, then?" '
"No, sir, Lord Samorty is dead these five years, sir."
Somehow he was surprised. But Lords did die; they only seemed to live forever. "May we pass? We come to trade," Whandall said.
"Up to the commander, sir!"
With patience, Whandall said, "Then let's talk to the commander-"
Waterman's face didn't change. He turned and shouted, "Whandall Placehold wishes to speak with the commander, Lord!"
The hidden Lord said something in a low voice. "Lord says a quarter hour, Master Peacevoice!" a guardsman shouted.
"Quarter hour, sir!" Waterman said. He returned to a position of rigid attention. When it was clear he wasn't going to say or do anything else, Whandall went back to the wagons.
Morth was grinning. "Interesting."
"Why?" Whandall demanded.
"Look." Morth pointed. A small cart drawn by one of the big horses the Lords used had pulled up behind the ranks of guards. Three workers had taken a small tent from the wagon and were busily setting it up. Another set a charcoal burner down. It was clear from the way he handled it that it held a live fire, and sure enough, he put a tea kettle on top of it. Another worker brought a table, then two chairs, went away for a while, then returned with a third chair.
The kinless workers were dressed all in yellow and black shirts. Whandall remembered Samorty's gardeners, but those weren't the same colors. Morth frowned. "Quintana," he said.
"Those are Quintana's colors," Morth said. "And it appears from his age that that's Lord Quintana himself. He must be seventy years old now, and no magic to help. And he came himself. Whandall, they are certainly taking you seriously."
"Is this good?"
A corporal came up to them. "Whandall Feathersnake, Lord Chief Witness Quintana requests your company at tea," he said formally. "And asks that you permit the sage Morth of Atlantis to accompany you."
Morth's grin turned sour, but he said, "We will be delighted. Come, Whandall."
It was Whandall's turn to grin.
A servant stood behind Quintana and held his chair as Quintana stood. "Whandall Feathersnake, I am delighted to meet you. Morth of Atlantis, it is good to see you again. You look younger than the last time we met."
"Indeed, I am younger, Lord Quintana."
Quintana smiled wryly. "I don't suppose you can sell me anything that will do the same for me?"
"Not so long as you insist on living in that blighted area you call the
Lordshills," Morth said.
"Ah. But elsewhere?"
"Nowhere short of the distant mountains," Morth said. "I've found a wonderful place half a hundred days' walk west by north-"
Quintana nodded. "Hardly surprising. Please be seated, Wagonmaster, Sage. I can offer you tea."
Weak hemp tea with a smoky flavor of tar. Morth sipped and made appreciative noises. Whandall smiled: the Lord wasn't trying to drug him.
"May I be blunt?" Quintana said. "Wagonmaster, what are your intentions?"
"We bring trade goods," Whandall said. "Some fit for Lords. If we have reason, we will send in more wagons with more goods. I had hoped to make camp at Lord's Town."
"There is no suitable accommodation for all of you there," Quintana said. "We can offer lodging for you and the Sage in Lord's Town, but there is no place for all of you, and I am certain you would prefer to remain together."
"Oh, yes." Get separated, here?
"So. Welcome back to Tep's Town," Quintana said.
"You are amused, Sage?"
"Mildly so," Morth said. "And curious as to why the chief witness would come personally to greet a trader."
Quintana's expression didn't change. "We are not often visited by wealthy caravans."
"Even so, I would wager this is the first one you have met."
"It is also the first I have seen, as you must know. And I grow old; I grow bored." Quintana said. He stood abruptly. "I grow frail. Master Peacevoice Waterman will escort you to a suitable camping ground. Perhaps I may visit you there. Welcome to Tep's Town."
Whandall invited Waterman to ride on the wagon with him.
"Don't mind if I do, sir," Waterman said. "Not getting any younger."
"Beaten up any boys lately?" Whandall asked conversationally.
"A few," Waterman said. "Comes with the job. Didn't fancy you'd have, forgotten. Sir."
"Truth is," Whandall said, "that was nicely judged. Here." He pulled the sleeve from his left arm. "I can't forget, no, but I can still pick things up. I wonder if you've seen the teller Tras Preetror lately?"
"Not for ten years. He doesn't come to Lord's Town, of course, but I keep track. Why?"
Whandall told the tale as they drove. "So I've been on both sides of that fence, Master Peace-voice."
They drove in silence for a few minutes. "There was something Lord Quintana wasn't saying," Whandall said.
"Yes, sir, there was," Waterman said readily enough. "You're still not welcome in Lordshills."
"But-Lord Samorty's dead?"
Waterman-Quintana-the Lords were keeping a promise made to a dead man. Because he was dead, the order could never be changed. Lords were strange. Whandall had not guessed how strange.
"Them Toronexti," Waterman said.
Huh ? "What about them?"
Waterman said nothing. Why had he brought up the subject at all? "Do you work for the Toronexti?" Whandall prompted.
Waterman sucked air through his teeth, an ugly sound. "Why ask that?"
"Not to offend. The Toronexti had to send you a runner," Whandall said. "He must have waited just long enough to see"-he brushed his tattooed cheek-"me, and then run like the wind. And you came. With Lord Quintana and most of your army."
"Not most," Waterman said. "Some. As to the Toronexti, what you think you know about them is likely wrong."
"Please do go on. We like to trade stories."
"And it's my turn?" Waterman grinned. "Most Lordkin think they're just another band. A few think they work for the Lords."
"Used to," Waterman said. "Used to collect taxes, and keep some, of course. They kept the kinless from running away, looked after trade stuff for the Lords. But my father's father told me trade stopped coming through the woods, and then there were more Toronexti, and they kept more of what they took." Waterman spat over the side. He said, "Gathered. I guess maybe they still keep to some of their tasks. Some goods get through from the forest. They did send a runner to tell us about your wagons. But mostly they work for themselves now."
"We never knew where they lived, how they lived, what they did with all that wealth. Who their neighbors were. If they were Lordkin, where's their turf? If they're kinless ... are they kinless?"
"I know how they started," the Master Peacevoice said. "Our forebears burned their way through the forest and took Tep's Town. You know that. But Lords and Lordkin didn't want to live together. When things had settled down, there were ... I'm told . .. exactly sixty boys and girls who had a Lord for a lather and a Lordkin for a mother."
"Never the other way around?"
Silence could often be the essence of tact.
Waterman said, "A place had to be found for them. They were set to guard the way through the forest. Kinless must not escape, you see; they might bring allies. But the tax men lived on site and built their homes along the Deerpiss. It was their duty."
"No homes there now," Whandall remembered. "Just that guardhouse and the barrier. That big center section is stone; must have been built by kin-less. The wings are crude work, more recent. They didn't become kinless."
Waterman said nothing.
Whandall asked, "What do you wonder, when you wonder about the Toronexti?"
They'd passed the edge of town and were moving through Flower Market territory. The streets looked empty until Whandall's mind adjusted. Then... here was the snapdragon sign crudely painted on a crumbling wall. Motion along a roof: a clumsy lurker... a whole line of them. Motion in window slits. An audience was watching the parade.
Waterman hadn't answered.
Whandall asked, "Why tell me?"
Waterman stared straight ahead.
They rolled along in a silence that might have been companionable. Whandall waited. Some secrets must be hidden, but some may be traded....
The caravan skirted the edge of Serpent's Walk, along the road between Serpent's Walk and Flower Market. Whandall remembered the road. Lord-kin came out of houses to stare at them. No one was going to try gathering from wagons escorted by marching Lordsmen.
Over there was an empty lot. A large square building must have covered that, and another behind it, now both gone. Ahead was a ruined wall, remains of a burned out building, and ahead of that-
A field, once paved with cobblestones. Grass and mustard stalks grew among the stones. All the walls around the field were ruins, buildings long burned out.
A fountain stood in the center. Water trickled from it-
"But this is Peacegiven Square!" Whandall shouted.
Waterman nodded, his expression unreadable, amused? Wry? Whandall couldn't tell. "That is it. Sir. It's where Lord Quintana said you was to make camp. Good roads from here, room to set up a market, not much water but more than most places. He thought it would be a good place."
Whandall stared at the ruins. "All right, he has a point. This will do. Master Peacevoice, it strikes me that you could have told me about this. Where we're to set up our market, and why, and what happened here in the twenty-two years I've been gone. But you decided to talk about the Toronexti. Was I supposed to know something? I never came anywhere near the Deerpiss until-"
Until Wanshig got involved in making wine.
There's a question; he's waiting for it. Whandall asked, "Did Lord Quintana ask you to mention Toronexti?"
"Wouldn't say yes; wouldn't say no," Waterman said.
"What would the Lords do if the Toronexti just... disappeared one day?"
"Find someone to take their place," Waterman said. "Someone more reasonable, and a lot fewer. I think me and ten men could do their job."
"There's a notion."